The African City

“Even at their best, African cities seemed to me miserable improvised anthills, attracting the poor and the desperate from the bush and turning them into thieves and devisers of cruel scams. Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves […] I swore that I would never return to the stinking buses, the city streets reeking of piss, the lying politicians, the schemers, the twaddlers, the crooks, the moneychangers taking advantage of weak currency and gullible people, the American God-botherers and evangelists demanding baptisms and screaming “Sinners!” – and forty years of virtue-industry CEOs faffing around with other people’s money and getting no results, except Africans asking for more […] Perhaps that was why I liked rural Africa so much and avoided towns, because in villages I saw self-sufficiency and sustainable agriculture. In the towns and cities, not the villages, I felt the full weight of all the broken promises and thwarted hope and cynicism.”

– Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

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Beka

A few small brain chunks are all that remain of the man on the street. My girlfriend Mahi and I walk past the lurching throng of crying Ethiopians. Myself, a thoroughly desensitized Westerner, feel only a detached curiosity, and perhaps a hint of jealousy at how emotional Ethiopians can be. If onlookers at a car accident cried in New York, Toronto, or London, they would be subjected to a flurry of bewildered and even mocking looks. This uncontrolled show of empathy contrasts sharply with the seemingly total disregard for human life one often sees in this part of the world, exhibited in the way people drive or how police beat the hoi polloi at the drop of a hat.

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Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa is many different cities to many different people – the rich, the poor, men, women, locals, foreigners, the diaspora, those born in the city, and those from the provinces. Fickle Addis defies generalization. It is reliably inconsistent. One sees too many luxury amenities to call it poor, too many wretched beggars to call it wealthy; too many easy smiles to call it mean, too many menacing glares to call it friendly; too many courtly bows to call it impolite, too much street boorishness to call it respectful; too much public affection to call it cold, too much impunity and indifference to call it compassionate; too much hope and joy to call it miserable, too much despair to call it happy; too much fraternity and piety to call it selfish, too much opportunism and greed to call it generous. Xenophobia and hospitality live side by side. There is a justifiable feeling of deep pride in Ethiopia’s rich culture and glorious history, but also a bitter resentment and shame in the poverty and wars that have ravaged the country.

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Bekoji

It’s Tuesday evening in Addis Ababa’s garish central Bole neighbourhood. Wealthy, Westernized, and dodgy, Bole is a favourite spot for Addis’s expat population, and my most hated part of the city. Outside the rainy season is chilly and grey. The sun sets into a funereal sky stained with diesel smoke. Droves of begging children aggressively harass anyone who looks like they have money. Shoe shiners use their bare hands to polish muck-covered loafers. Bratty rich kids (‘Bole Kids’) lacing their Amharic with American English sneer at the beggars and snicker at the bug-bitten, sunburned foreigners who are running to the hideous architecture and isolated bubble worlds of their luxury hotels.

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One Day in Addis

It must be an omen from God. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Impossible weather for the subtropics of Addis Ababa in late July, the height of the rainy season. The sun is preciously scarce this time of year, and a chance like this mustn’t be squandered.

Doing laundry is tough during the chilly, dark rainy season – drying the clothes is a losing battle. The best you can hope for is a cool breeze and a few minutes of sunlight filtering through the clouds, and even then it takes all day and night to dry. Then of course they must be ironed, which helps to dry and soften them, and kills any bed bugs or fleas hiding in the tucks and folds. Washing machines are rare even amongst the wealthy here, and dryers are unheard of outside of laundromats.

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